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Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Sewell wrote Black Beauty to expose the widespread mistreatment of horses. She depicts horses that receive good care as well as those who are abused. The contrasts in the horses' personalities are sometimes startling. Three forms of cruelty come to light: deliberate cruelty, cruelty in the name of fashion, and cruelty committed in ignorance. On several occasions, innocent bystanders intercede on behalf of an abused horse, illustrating the idea that preventing cruelty to animals is everyone's responsibility. Sewell is particularly appalled at the common practice of using a device called a bearing rein (or checkrein) to prevent the horse from lowering his head.

Black Beauty's main equine companions are Ginger and Merrylegs. Ginger is a high-tempered horse whose training and temperament contrast sharply with Black Beauty's. She is badtempered largely because of the mistreatment she suffered when young, while Black Beauty is good-tempered largely because he enjoyed good treatment when young. And even Ginger, with all her problems, eventually quiets down during her time at Birtwick Hall, because of the calming effect of the humane treatment that she receives there. Merrylegs is a pony who, like Black Beauty, embodies the good results of humane treatment. Other major horse characters include Sir Oliver, whose tail was cut off when he was a colt, and Captain, a former cavalry horse.

The main human characters are Black Beauty's first owner, whose name is never revealed; his second owner, Squire Gordon, of Birtwick Hall; John Manly and little Joe Green, the grooms at Birtwick Hall; and the cabby Jerry Barker and his family. These kind and knowledgeable people strive to treat their horses well, and their horses show the good results of their kind treatment.

The cruel humans are all minor characters, including the various carters who are chastised for deliberately abusing their horses. Two of the more important animal abusers are Samson Ryder, a horse trainer, and Nicholas Skinner, a cab owner. Ryder first trained Ginger, causing her bad temper. Skinner eventually obtains Black Beauty, whom he hires out along with many tired, old horses at rates so high that cabbies must overwork the horses in order to earn a living. He never gives his horses a day off, proclaiming, "My plan is to work 'em as long as they'll go, and then to sell 'em for what they'll fetch, at the knacker's or elsewhere."

Another of Black Beauty's themes is the difficulty of a cab driver's life in general, and the particular difficulty of dealing with the hypocrisy of churchgoers who use a cab to get to church. At the time that Black Beauty was written, keeping the Sabbath—that is, not working on Sunday—was something that many people thought was important. People who hired cabs to go to church on Sunday were, while keeping the Sabbath themselves, having the cabbies who drove them to church break their own Sabbath. In what may have been either a journal entry or an unfinished letter, Sewell wrote of a conversation she had with a cab driver, and her resulting intention to portray the problem of hypocrisy in Sabbath keeping. In this piece of writing, she relates the cab driver's story of a friend whose churchgoing passengers were actually so blatantly hypocritical as to hand the cab driver a tract on keeping the Sabbath as they got out of his cab on their way to Sunday services.

Characters

(Novels for Students)

Lady Anne

Black Beauty is Lady Anne’s riding horse for a while at Earlshall Park, but she calls him Black Auster.

Dolly Barker

Dolly is the eight-year-old daughter of Jerry, the cab driver who owned Beauty. Dolly would bring food to her father at the cab stand.

Harry Barker

Harry is Jerry the cab driver’s twelve-year-old son. Harry capably helped with the care of the horses.

Jeremiah Barker

Jeremiah, called Jerry, was Beauty’s owner for three years. Jerry is a kindly and decent London cab driver. Jerry takes excellent care of his horses and does not believe that either he or they should work seven days a...

(The entire section is 2,556 words.)